Monday, January 31, 2011

Life After the MFA

Believe it or not, I didn’t disappear for more than a month because I was charged with the felony cyberbullying of James Frey. Nor have I abandoned the blog to enter the high-stakes world of corporate events planning under an alias. I haven’t spent the last several weeks trapped in a wine cellar with zero access to wi-fi – though wouldn’t that be nice? – nor did I embark on a voyage of personal discovery and ingest a rare tropical parasite in the process. Instead, after a flurry of houseguests over the holidays, and quite a few flurries of the meteorological variety, I’ve been spending most of my time doing what I’m doing right now: typing on a little red laptop on a big red couch.

I’ve been working on a novel, to be more specific, and I’ve been able to focus on it lately because at the end of 2010, I took a step even less advisable for an unpublished writer of uncertain talents: I quit my day job. Now before you call in the calm young men with the restraints, let me explain that I don’t have any illusions that I’m going to be able to support myself with my fiction, now or in the future. Like most everyone, I have dreams where the zombie of Maxwell Perkins and the werewolf played by Danny DeVito in Big Fish hand me a giant check and fireworks implode backwards in the sky and an ostrich with a human face raises her head out of the sand and whispers, “You’ve arrived.”

Also, this guy blurbs me.  Admit it, you’ve had this dream too.

Realistically, though, I know that’s never going to happen, and in a lot of ways my decision to join the ranks of the funemployed had nothing to do with writing at all. But at least temporarily, my newfound free time has given me an opportunity to recommit to my creative work – something that would have sounded like unnecessary bullshit to me a few years ago.

Because I made this decision already -- on several occasions, in fact, but most recently and dramatically in my decision to spend two years and a not insubstantial chunk of change to attend an MFA creative writing program conveniently located near the diseased but still-beating heart of America’s publishing industry. At the time, I certainly hoped this would lead to something unspeakably glorious, like a book deal or admittance to some eternal Barthelmian conservatory, but at the very least, it seemed like the choice would stick – that forever after I would walk through life as a WRITER, the brand upon me like some mark of Cain that doubled as a hand stamp for readings at bars with a cover.

Then three years after graduating, I found myself crouched under my boss’s desk, muttering curses at a broken printer whose orange error light glared like the eye of Sauron, wondering what the hell had happened to me. I’d changed, seemingly overnight, into someone I hardly recognized. In grad school, at the beginning of the semester, classmates would greet me with, “How’s Bernie?” – asking after the protagonist of my first novel as if inquiring about the health of my son. Now I rarely told people I wrote fiction at all. I’d become cynical and witty, or at least snide, on the subject of publishing; a daily reader of Publisher’s Marketplace, I watched trends roll through the industry, as boring and unavoidable as weather, but the deals that cut me to the quick were the rare few that sounded like books I could have written if only I could really write. Instead, I felt like a study in existential inauthenticity, pouring my intellectual energy into rigorous, vehemently argued reports for work or comments that went ignored on strangers’ blogs, then staring at my own latest Big Project in stunned despair. I’ve rarely identified with a character as much as Oona Lazlo in Chronic City when she discovers her best work will never be published, not even pseudonymously: “Apparently, I’m who you enlist when you’re selling out in this town.” I also felt like I was ghostwriting someone else’s life, and badly.

I’m not describing all this to elicit sympathy – as the expression goes, when you make your own bed you have to lie on it, curled helplessly in a fetal position and praying morning never comes. I’ve known writing was a tough racket, theoretically, since I was old enough to attend poetry readings in my hometown, where thinly veiled suicide threats masqueraded as verse and the espresso machine was louder than the microphone. But I have to say that I think the post-MFA slump has been the toughest test of my resolve so far, and I don’t think that I’m alone in that.

So the title of this piece doubles as a call for comments – for those of you former MFAers out there in blogland, what have you done to hold onto your discipline, your sense that the work you’re doing is important, even/especially when success didn’t come easy? And what, if anything, could MFA programs do to better prepare fledgling writers for what they face afterwards? I’ll plan to talk about both those subjects in future posts.


V. Wetlaufer said...

(I know you know this, but other commenters might not so here is my tale)

I chose to continue on in academia with a PhD, since I hope to be a professor one day, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a job with an MFA. Also because I love school. Also, my MFA (FSU) is a literature-heavy program, as opposed to a studio-based program, and going on to the PhD was just what everyone was expected to do, to some extent.

But rather than teach me that my writing matters or give me hope for the future, being in a PhD program (though I absolutely love the program I'm in and it's not the individual program's fault) has made me more and more hopeless about my future prospects. I think we all go toward an MFA convinced that something great will happen. Then our theses fail to get published and we meet younger writers better than we are and we see our peers on the job market fail to get jobs and it's depressing.

I don't really doubt what I'm doing. This is what I've wanted to do since I was a child--in third grade, I told my parents I wanted to teach college--and this is the traditional route toward that. But think whatever you do post-MFA (just like post-BA), there's a sense of being underwhelmed. I do think the recession plays a role here. Our generation grew up promised prosperity and now we may be one of the first generations to have things worse than our parents. (I heard that somewhere; I have no facts to back it up.)

I have no answers, but I often feel the same way.

My friend Kelly and her fellow Montana MFA '08 alumnae have a blog you should check out:

Sandy said...

Hey Chandler! Just wanted to say congrats on quitting your day job. Totally jealous! And, I think it's great that you're so committed to writing. Keep up the good work and I look forward to your future posts.

D.N. Stuefloten said...

I have no MFA, so perhaps I shouldnt be posting. But perhaps you will allow me a small rant: I think MFAs are a foolish detour if you really wish to write. The real university for a writer is the world, which you should study with a single-minded intensity. Oh, and study other writers, too. That is, read them. Read the great writers of the past and present and study how they solved/exacerbated all the problems of character and description and dialog and pacing and so on. Go to college if you want a career as an engineer (or a teacher, or a car mechanic, or a whatever). If you want to be a writer: live, explore, study, read, write.
I will now step off my soapbox.

The Chawmonger said...

@V. and Sandy -- thanks for reading and commenting!

@D.N. Stuefloten -- I don’t think, as you apparently do, that a single path is right for all writers. And I’m going to be frank and say I find it not only clichéd but also incredibly presumptuous when you say, “MFAs are a foolish detour if you really wish to write.” Who is the “you” in this sentence, and how do you know this “you” so very well? I completely understand that some authors work best in isolation, showing their work to no one, or that others might find the university environment confining and bureaucratic and thus stifling. If an individual feels this way, there’s no reason to go to an MFA program or to feel defensive about not doing so.

But – and this is so obvious to me it seems almost unnecessary to bother spelling it out – not everyone is the same. What one creative person finds stifling another might find invigorating. Some people thrive on the community an MFA program offers, or they connect with a mentor, or they come to refine their own aesthetic ideas best through conversation and debate. I think the first lesson in the “university of the world” should be to respect and understand the motivations and experiences of other people, even if they’re not carbon copies of yourself.

D.N. Stuefloten said...

Well, I did preface my comments by asking you to allow me a small rant. But did you ever suspect that -- instead of spending all your time and money on the (apparently useless) MFA -- youd have been better off throwing yourself into your novel? Perhaps then you wouldnt be lost in "existential inauthenticity." I sympathize, I really do, with your plight. I suppose if a person were interested solely in commercial writing, in making money by writing, an MFA might be useful, but you strike me as a person who wants to write literature -- something significant, something authentic, shall we say. That is what I see, and applaud, in your blog. And I doubt if your MFA has helped you achieve this.

Well, I'll kick aside my soapbox. I hope your time jobless will be productive, in your own way!

Victoria said...

Hi Chandler,

I came to your blog through Courtney. As an applicant for 2011 MFA programs, I'm really curious to see the other comments that come forth. I'm also unsure if the MFA programs is right before me because, partly, of what you address - the post-MFA hardship! I felt like adjusting to the "real world" after undergrad was like a blow to the head...will I feel the same way when I graduate a MFA program? Leaving a comfortable structure where my priority takes priority and once again being flung into the world of rent and shitty day jobs? That is what I'm doing now, and I'm trying to find a suitable writing schedule, trying to stay positive, creatively engaged, and motivated by attending readings, doing workshops, and networking with other writers, but alas, it is terribly exhausting. Then again, I always knew being a writer would be so!

Thanks for your post - looking forward to the future ones! Any other thoughts you have on MFA programs would also be appreciated! I applied to 11 and am waiting to hear back....


The Chawmonger said...

@DN Stuefloten: "instead of spending all your time and money on the (apparently useless) MFA -- youd have been better off throwing yourself into your novel?" -- What is it, exactly, that you think people do when they're in an MFA program, if not throw themselves into their writing?

I think you misunderstood my blog post; if I was less than clear, I'm sorry. What I'm writing about in this essay is my writing life *after* graduating from an MFA program (hence the title, "Life After the MFA"), not my experience during one (that I would have titled "Who's That Sleeping In the Computer Lab?"). When I was in graduate school, I did in fact "throw myself" into a novel, which I finished four months after completing my coursework, and which, gratifyingly enough, got me literary representation and some attention from contests. But when publication didn't pan out for that book, I found myself, like many emerging artists of all stripes and backgrounds, marooned in "real life" AKA "the university of the world." That's the experience I'm describing here: the shift from a period when I was surrounded by other people who took literature seriously and who provided an engaged audience for my work, to a period when most of the people I encountered didn't know, and definitely didn't care, if I wrote fiction or not. When I was trying to start my second book, it felt impossible to still see myself as a novelist, but pouring my energy into work I didn't particularly believe in felt like a betrayal of my truest self. That's what I meant by "existential inauthenticity."

@Victoria: Thanks so much for checking out my blog! I'd be happy to chat more with you about MFA programs over email if there are specific things you'd like to discuss (I'm sure Courtney could give you my info -- I'm also on Facebook). Obviously, I think there is a tough re-adjustment period after grad school, but the upside is that you do at least walk away from a program knowing a community of other writers who are going through the same things. Anyway, best of luck with your applications :-)

scott g.f.bailey said...

A bunch of people I know (some in real life and others only via the marvelous interweb) are quitting their jobs in order to concentrate on writing. Gosh, you're all a lot braver than I am and I wish you the very best of luck. Spending an extended amount of time focused on the craft can only be a good thing.

I don't have an MFA but I'm very interested in your experience and that of other MFAs, so I hope you get a lot of feedback and continue this line of thought in future posts.

WilliamofS said...

The real goal is to get into the top 4% of whatever it is you are doing. Acting, Art, Professional Sports, Writing. History is littered with people who have written millions of words of writing before they honed their skills to the point of a creative break through that would be perfect for times they were living. Why do writing students or MFA graduates feel that they can skip the Laws of Cause and Effect. How can you be good at writing until you have been bad and how can you become a great novelist until you have been at least mediocre. Very few people become good or even bad by writing one novel(what a joke) and are disappointed that the literary agents are not knocking their door down. This is crazy! Success lies on the far side of many failures until you have built the skill sets to be successful in anything in life.
I have never heard of a professional golfer winning his first tournament and expecting now to be another legend of the field with endorsement companies chasing them around the course. It may takes hundreds of rejected novels to get published so you need to get going. In this time of the Internet their is no reason you can't publish yourself by books on demand, or even audio books. There are more avenues of exposure now than anytime in the history of the human race. If you are good it will happen. Go to the discount bins of any book store to see the many one hit wonders that will fade into the oblivion and never be heard from again. They paid the price in advance and made it to becoming a published author thus enjoying the rush and satisfaction of making it.

When you choose the fine arts you are choosing a love affair with something and with all affairs of the heart you will find joy, eroticism, and of course tragedy.
You are only on this planet for such a short time so you might as well spend it doing something you love and striving to move up the ranks into that top 4%....It may take many years so never give up and keep your dream close at hand. Persistence + Vision will give you success in anything in life. Good luck and God Bless.